3 out of 4 stars
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I have never rooted for any fictional character quite as much I did for Haskell Hodge, the hilarious, dorky, slightly histrionic protagonist and narrator of Gary Seigel’s novel, Haskell Himself. As most coming-of-age stories go, 16-year-old Haskell is living a perfectly predictable life when circumstances forced him out of his comfort zone. His mother has decided to accompany her boyfriend to Europe, and poor Haskell is packed off to California to finish his senior year in high school. As a New York-raised drama geek who once dressed up as Liberace for a recital, Haskell doubts he can ever fit in. Not in the conservative neighborhood of Encino. Not with the Teitlebaums, the family he’s supposed to live with. And certainly not in the local high school, where a kid like him is sure to get bullied. To add to his troubles, on his last night in New York, Haskell makes a startling discovery. He kissed a boy. And he liked it.
Seigel’s writing is delightfully immersive, both in the depiction of Haskell’s inner workings and the descriptions of the tangible world around him. Haskell’s internal monologues are always good for a laugh, and the awkward offshoots of his search for his sexual identity are so painfully real that I found myself cringing in secondhand embarrassment. There’s an endearing quality to Haskell’s hopeless infatuation with a boy in his new school. And his determination to “drive the homo out of him” — by dating a weird girl who’s fluent in Pig Latin — manages to be both humorous and heartbreaking. Add the fact that the story is set in the 1960s, when homophobia is very rampant and corrosive, and we have a narrative that also speaks to the social issues of the time.
Seigel does a stellar job of creating a vivid sense of time and place. The book is packed with pop culture references, from music to films to TV shows, that anyone who grew up in the ‘60s can bathe in nostalgia. There are also some subtle touches here and there that harken back to this period. For instance, who knew inflight smoking was a thing back then? I liked how these elements enriched the story without coming across as mere snippets of trivia.
Though Seigel kept the story flowing at a nice pace for the most part of the book, the plot ended up being a bit uneven. The climax didn’t exactly feel like the turning point that it should be, and the chapters leading to the conclusion seemed rushed. I was hoping that the subplot about Haskell auditioning for a movie would be explored some more in light of the LGBT movement at the time. I was also disappointed that Haskell’s relationship with another character progressed from flirting to sex in the span of just one chapter. I wished the romantic subplot had a more solid build-up, and I really wished the story ended just as strongly as it began.
As far as editing is concerned, there are some errors in the text (mostly missing punctuation marks and spelling inconsistencies) but nothing too severe or distracting. There are profanities and LGBT-related slurs throughout the book, uttered mostly by the teen characters themselves. Sexual scenarios are also present, and although not gratuitous or explicit, readers uncomfortable with same-sex romance might have to give this one a pass.
Despite the negatives, Haskell Himself deserves at least 3 out of 4 stars for its lovable protagonist, its vibrant setting, and its broader message of gender equality. I recommend this to young adults who are also exploring their own identities, sexual or otherwise.
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